Oprah, Jonathan and James
Oprah Winfrey started up her book club again, which means we soon will be fighting over the issue that arose when Jonathan Franzen was disinvited from her show three years ago. And this is the question of taste.
Winfrey’s re-inaugural selection is A Million Little Pieces, a memoir by James Frey about surviving cocaine-addiction rehab at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota.
To recreate the experience, Frey uses a Gatling-gun-like prose style. He describes night sweats and vomiting, fighting with inmates and sickly hallucinations.
For some readers, Frey’s use of expletives and his depictions of bodily functions are in bad taste. Other critics, this one included, understand this as part of the bargain of reading the book; Frey wanted us to feel as he felt. By necessity, it would not be a comfortable reading experience.
The hand-wringing in some newspapers about this selection can be explained by the fact that there are two definitions of “good taste” in competition here. Or, more appropriately, one definition whose two forks explain a lot about why the culture war continues.
Dictionary.com defines good taste as “satisfying generally accepted social or esthetic standards.”
When Franzen criticized some of Oprah’s previous choices four years ago as “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional,” ultimately leading her to shut down the segment entirely, he was taking issue with her aesthetic taste.
In the dust-up, many critics attempted to categorize Franzen’s aesthetic complaint as a social one—but it wasn’t. To try to insinuate otherwise is to tar Franzen as a racist or a sexist.
It is equally unfair, however, to attempt to judge Frey’s book solely on the basis of societal good taste. As more and more people buy and, I hope, read A Million Little Pieces, it is useful to remember how many books were attacked in the past or could be now under “social taste” masquerading as “aesthetic taste.”
Was it bad taste for Homer to describe how a grief-enraged Achilles tied Hector’s corpse to his chariot and dragged it through the sand for days? Modern literature is full of moments that can be called in bad taste. Alexander Portnoy masturbates in the bathroom while his family eats dinner in Philip Roth’s classic Portnoy’s Complaint, and Rabbit Angstrom has sex with his son’s wife in Rabbit at Rest.
It’s not just men who are writing about the sexing and the boozing and killing. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood told the story of a man who comes from military service and wreaks mayhem on a Southern town.
Great literature will always offend good taste—in fact, it has a mandate to do so. When our taste button is pushed, we consider our boundaries, our morals, our priorities. It makes us question how a story can be told or why.
Before John Dos Passos wrote his U.S.A. trilogy, the technology of modern America had not been incorporated into the novel. By doing so, he offended many critics’ sense of good taste.
Until Richard Wright published Native Son, a novel in which a black man accidentally kills a white woman, the question of what our cities had done to their working populations was not properly questioned.
Until then, that question itself offended good taste.
So, let us be grateful for Winfrey’s spotlight on the importance of reading. And let us agree on this: We must always, always be offended. And let us never let that prevent us from reading.